Oh, to be a gangster in the '30s. You had newfound speed, thanks to the automobile. You had firepower, thanks to the tommy gun. Most of the time, you had fame. This was nice, because often, if you were a famous criminal in the '30s, you were pretty violent and stupid, and wouldn't live long.
I'd just finished reading journalist Bryan Burrough's masterful Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 (coming soon to a theater near you, courtesy of Michael Mann) when The Warner Gangsters Collection (Warner, $68.95) arrived in the mail. These are like the yin and yang of American mob mythology. This set of six of the greatest crime pictures from the '30s and '40s (available separately at $19.98 each) gave rise to the myth of the American mob outlaw that Burrough spends a great deal debunking.
Take the infamous Ma Barker, whose gang had a thing for Toledo nightlife and was often traced here by the FBI, only to slip away. Barker was elderly, toothless, and not especially bright, but in no less than two films (including Roger Corman's Bloody Mama in 1970), she's the mastermind screenwriters and J. Edgar Hoover wanted her to be. After the Barker clan was trapped in 1934 and killed in a shoot-out with Hoover's G-men, Hoover realized he couldn't just say his men shot an elderly granny who probably, Burrough writes, never even fired a gun.
So post-mortem, Ma Barker became a gangland ringleader.
Not that the movies weren't already doing a fine job of inventing its most durable antihero: The Warner Gangster Collection opens with Little Caesar (1930), the seminal Edward G. Robinson crime film that gave us the cliche of the underworld as fast talking, two-fisted mama's boys, and closes with Raul Walsh's brutal White Heat (1949), awash in psycho-gangsters and little glamour. It feels like the end of a cycle, and it was - until The Godfather films.
Between those bookends, James Cagney took Robinson's toad-faced brute and added a little charm to the danger and gave Depression America a perverse road map to riches. He dominates this set. His famous moment comes in The Public Enemy (1931), when he pushes a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's kisser; but sprinkled throughout the Gangster Collection are a dozen others: Cagney's balletic death dance on the steps of a church in The Roaring Twenties (1939); Cagney screaming "Top of the world!" and going up in mushroom cloud at the end of White Heat; a gangster pretending to break down as he walks into the execution chamber in Angels With Dirty Faces (1938).
What I notice is the earlier the picture, the less time the film spends wondering how an American boy became an American mobster. Robinson is seemingly born wrong; there's not enough time for psychology. And despite title cards (inserted at the request of censors) that reassure us these are really monsters, it's not hard to see why Depression-era audiences couldn't get enough: These guys may have been living half lives but that half was exciting.
No wonder The Roaring Twenties, which was made as Europe was headed to war, is nostalgic to a fault, and as early 1936, The Petrified Forest goes out of its way to feature characters who elevate the mob to mythical status. The film remembers a simpler time, when we loved a glamorous, ingenious camaraderie of crooks who never were.
MYSTERY DANCE: Thinking back on the past year, now that Academy Award nominations are out, one mystery remains (and it has nothing to do with The Village): Why again was it a scandal for a Chicago lawyer to take ballroom dancing lessons?
Why, pray tell, does Richard Gere go to extreme lengths to conceal this hideous secret? Shall We Dance? (Buena Vista, $29.98), available on video Tuesday, so badly miscalculates on that question it even casts Susan Sarandon as Gere's wife - yep, one of our most famously liberal actresses is cast as a woman who is horrified to learn that her husband enrolled in a dance class.
If the dancing were transcendent, the point would be moot and Shall We Dance? would be merely a wannabe throwback to old MGM musicals. But instead it's an oddly dour remake of a charming Japanese drama from 1996 - also available Tuesday (Buena Vista, $29.98), and a little comparison viewing could not be more unflattering. In the context of the repressive culture of Japanese businessmen, ballroom dance lessons would truly be scandalous. But a Chicago attorney who takes a ballroom dancing course taught by Jennifer Lopez? That is a metrosexual.
A GLASS HALF FULL: There would be no way to do this job - there would be no way to write about the arts in general - if you weren't willing to see the best in the worst. For example, viewed from another angle, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Paramount, $29.98), which tanked last fall, is not a bad movie but a special-effects milestone just itching to break out of a mediocre action film.
Director (and Michigan native) Kerry Conran bought some off-the-shelf computer gear a few years ago, dreamed big, and his experiments made the rounds, impressing enough Hollywood suits to give him the clout to shoot a feature starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law. As a homage to adventure serials, it's flat. But as a marriage of ubiquitous digital effects and that stylized glow of black-and-white classics, Conran's film points new directions for boring old effects.
Speaking of boring old effects, AVP: Alien Vs. Predator (Fox, $29.98) has one thing going for it: a cheap breeziness that allows it to bounce right out of your head. The idea is, a pyramid in the Arctic is a battle zone for interstellar nasties. Which I wish had been the plot of First Daughter (Fox, $27.98), the second presidential offspring comedy of 2004. The first was Chasing Liberty starring Mandy Moore. This one has our own Katie Holmes - never less than charming as a college student chafing under the hot glare of the media, but who always appears to be wondering: Haven't I outgrown this sort of thing?